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Master of Design grad, Andy Simon, creates complex escape rooms for Immersive Tech

Andy Simon (MDes 2020) has been busy since graduating. The recent grad has taken on the role of Design Manager at Immersive Tech, a Vancouver company specializing in creating engaging and immersive experiences. We talked with Andy about what the design process is like, the creative process, and how Emily Carr University set him up for success in his career.

For those of us who have experienced an escape room, you need a strong team. Each person in attendance needs to bring a different skill to the room, whether it’s problem or puzzle solving, logic, word play, or sharp eyes. Building an escape room is no small feat.

“As a set designer by trade, I am often drawn to visually stimulating environments,” said Andy. “In many of our escape rooms and immersive experiences, we don’t employ actors or live characters in the room, this means the main character of our story is usually the space.” Andy explains that they start with a base, using the stock experiences common in escape rooms. These can be escaping the room, escaping a compound multi-room design, search and find, or explore and discover.

Image courtesy of Andy Simon, Immersive Tech

“Along with solving riddles and clues, players of our experiences are often given some sort of parameter, escape in time, return the lost object before it’s too late, cast a spell to save the world,” said Andy. “This mechanic gives us the chance to raise the stakes of the experience.”

With any design project, the client sets parameters for the project, sometimes rough sketches but other times it can be really vague. “Some projects, I don’t even get that much to go off of,” said Andy. “Instead, we are offered some adjectives like ‘we want the experience to be exciting, daunting, or magical’.”

Between the client parameters and the stock experiences, Andy works with the Creative Experiences Manager to present a group of ideas to the client. “We put together a pitch of a handful of ideas, usually a short video trailer or slide deck,” said Andy. “It’s full of reference material and preliminary renderings or images, and ask the client to select a few of their favourites.”

Image courtesy of Andy Simon, Immersive Tech

After the client picks their favourite concept, the bulk of the work begins. Andy creates a multitude of sketches and concepts before the project enters fabrication. “I will employ a series of UI and UX techniques to the space, make sure the user flow is cohesive around the rooms and that the props and furniture are to the correct scale,” said Andy. From walls to tables, to props and scale, Andy renders everything that will eventually be in the physical space.

Once the project arrives at fabrication, Andy gets involved making sure that the project comes to life as envisioned. “I will travel to the fabrication shop to support the construction of the room props,” said Andy. “I will help paint, texture, and apply game play relevant decals to the props to make sure they are consistent with the overall scope and period.”

After installed, the rooms themselves are immersive, highly visual spaces. “My biggest challenge, but also my most favorite aspect of my job, is making a bunch of material feel like it has a life and a history,” said Andy. “Everything should fit together and feel like it belongs. In the images, you will see laboratories, submarines, bunkers, spaceships. Every detail needs to have a reason for being.”

Image courtesy of Andy Simon, Immersive Tech

Andy explains that if a client asks for something with a marine theme, he has to make sure the entire room feels like it belongs underwater. “I will go about figuring out what the key details are that most folks will recognize when stepping into that space, as belonging to that theme or idea,” continued Andy. “If I want a submarine, what screams submarine? A periscope, a command deck, tight quarters, dark spaces, portholes. I only have a few seconds to try and fully immerse a player in a space before they are swept up in game play, trying to solve the clues ahead of them.”

As fun and creative as developing these types of experiences are, they aren’t devoid of hard work. “There are many long hours. Sometimes it’s very, very dull. I can’t count the number of spreadsheets I have created in my short year with the company,” said Andy, before joking: “Which is too bad, because a spreadsheet would do a great job of keeping track of that kind of thing.”

Andy says that he has been learning to be very cognizant of my work life balance. “Like many creative jobs, industry professionals expect long hours and lots of overtime on a skeleton crew with razor thin margins,” explained Andy. “However, the work remains very rewarding. Watching folks navigate a room, have those aha! moments when they conquer a particularly challenging puzzle, the squealing of young people having fun in a scary room can make the hours feel worth it.”

Image courtesy of Andy Simon, Immersive Tech

“It is an interesting intersection of skills required to do something as simple as making a locked room experience, at least at the scale upon which we operate,” said Andy. “There is a great deal of talent required by a pretty niche team to make this happen. It very much surprised me how diverse our team is and must be to pull a room together.”

For those students and early career alumni looking to get into the escape room industry, Andy has some tips. “Play, a lot,” he said. “The more you play, the more you dig in to find out how someone else created that little moment of magic you just enjoyed, the more it will make you want to figure out how to do it for yourself.” Andy expressed that the more rooms he plays and the more board games he examines, the more he loves his job.

“Don’t be afraid to only be a little bit good at a lot of things,” said Andy. “I have always called myself a ‘jack of all trades, a master of none’. As the workforce, and the games industry in particular, grows increasingly more complex, folks are looking for creatives who are extremely versatile and able to speak and work between ideas or departments.”

In terms of how Andy’s degree from Emily Carr University came into play, he shares that one of the biggest takeaways from the Master of Design program was the importance of good design research and broadening his tool kit.

“I use much of the UI and UX skills and techniques I picked up from my time as a graduate researcher to apply to my position in industry,” said Andy. “These are skills and techniques, practiced and honed by my peers and mentors that I would not have had access to otherwise in my undergraduate education. It makes me a more powerful and agile designer, to be able to trust my instincts when in the thick of a project, knowing my ideas are rooted in good design theory and research.”

If you want to keep up with Andy’s work, keep your eyes peeled on YouTube. Andy hinted that you may just see his work and face make a little appearance.

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